Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chemistry, Wisdom, and Pope Francis

Yesterday was the mid-term for my first ever college chemistry course. After the mid-term, during the lecture which was on conversions of mass to moles (which I learned how to do in high school) I was amusing myself by following various forms of nuclear decay down the wikipedia rabbit hole. Before I knew it I was up to my neck in electron neutrinos, positrons, muons, tauons, and leptons and anti-leptons of all varieties. Sheesh! I remember when the only subatomic particles were protons, neutrons and electrons, and the only ones you really worried about were electrons, because they are the only ones that interact with other atoms. As far as chemistry was concerned, the rest may as well not exist.

That, of course, was high school chemistry 14 or 15 years ago.

Ah, but they do exist. And apparently they do matter (if you'll excuse the pun). These particles do interact with other particles through fundamental forces such as gravity and electromagnetism, and exert a small but measurable influence on the universe. Or perhaps even a huge influence. Who really knows?

It seems that every time scientists think they've gotten to the bottom of this whole reality thing, another layer of complexity reveals itself. In light of that minor indulgence in a little casual reading, I was particularly struck by this passage from the book of Wisdom which was the scripture for the Office of Readings this morning.

Now God grant I speak suitably
and value these endowments at their worth:
For he is the guide of Wisdom
and the director of the wise.
For both we and our words are in his hand,
as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.
For he gave me sound knowledge of existing things,
that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements,
The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,
the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons.
Cycles of years, positions of the stars,
natures of animals, tempers of beasts,
Powers of the winds and thoughts of men,
uses of plants and virtues of roots-
Such things as are hidden I learned and such as are plain;
for Wisdom, the artificer of all, taught me. 

 This just blows my mind, and reminds me of the kerfuffle in the news over Pope Francis' statements that evolution and the big bang theories are not incompatible with belief in a creator. Apparently this has some atheists and fundamentalists who understand neither evolution nor Catholic theology up in arms. The literal seven-day creation interpretation is really more of a protestant thing than a Catholic thing, and always has been. In fact, literalism itself is not Catholic. There is something striking that this passage from the book of Wisdom is to be found in the Catholic Bible, but not in the Protestant Bible.

Did the writer of wisdom know everything, or even a percent, of what we know about astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, biology, etc? No. Not even a percent of a percent. And we make a grave mistake if we think we have done more than merely scratch the surface.

The writer of Wisdom, however, did know the one thing that is proper to the true scientist. He knew enough to stand in humble awe before the majesty and complexity of creation. He kneel enough to kneel and listen and not to assume that he knew all things by his own cleverness. He knew that the Mystery continues forever. 

He knew more than we do.

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